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Great Leaders On and Off the Playing Field

What makes a great leader is the most important focus of an entire industry:  Leadership development.  It has spawned a new field of work (Executive Coaching), limitless educational programs and institutes, and dozens of anecdotal self-help books by former CEOs and government leaders.  In addition, the juxtaposition of President Obama’s leadership style with Donald Trump’s leadership style is the topic of many a coffee-shop and dinner-table debate.

Great leadership makes the difference between success and failure not just for those leaders, but for their countries, their businesses, their teams, and society as a whole. Knowing what great leadership is, however, is a more difficult challenge.

The latest contribution to this discussion is a book by Sam Walker entitled, “The Captain Class”, and an excerpted article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Seven Leadership Secrets of Great Team Captains.” In it, he details the results of years of research on the captains of highly successful sports teams. What did he find? According to Walker, the characteristics of great team captains include:

  • They will do what is needed (e.g., tough, unglamorous tasks).
  • They bent and broke the rules – for a purpose – and could be very aggressive.
  • They communicate effectively, but not necessarily eloquently.
  • They understand the values of signs and symbols.
  • They had the courage of their beliefs.
  • They were relentless.
  • They showed remarkable emotional self-control.

Notably, Walker indicated that they were not usually superstars, but skilled and capable performers.

These characteristics are critical for leaders in any context. Perseverance, persuasion through action rather than through words, being willing and flexible enough to change ways of working, and having the emotional maturity to be both courageous and self-controlled are essential ingredients to leading teams, whether on the sports field, or in the office.

Which ones of these do you show? Where can you “improve your game” to build a better team?  For each one of Walker’s assets of a team captain, ask yourself,

  • Am I willing to do anything I ask my people to do? Or are some things “beneath me?”
  • How do I respond when someone says, “That’s how we’ve always done it?”
  • How clear is my message? Do people follow my ideas, or do they sometimes seem confused?
  • What are the non-verbal messages I give? What are the signs and symbols of my leadership?  How do I bring ideas to life for my people?
  • How do I respond under pressure from peers or managers? Do I hold to my beliefs, or do I comply, as a “good soldier”?
  • Do I show perseverance and consistency in the face of adversity or obstacles?
  • Do I lose my cool, or wear my stress on my sleeve?

One simple step to improve your leadership: Pick one of these ideas, where you can do a better job, and focus on it for several months. One simple change will improve your team leadership significantly, and then take on another challenge.